Real Food Encyclopedia | Yacon
Yacon is a plant that gives and gives. Above the ground, the plant produces sunflower-like flowers. The root below has two distinct elements. On top is a bunching of reddish rhizomes which look similar to young ginger. Underneath are brown, edible tubers that look like sweet potatoes or sunchokes. They have a crisp, fresh bite, similar to water chestnuts or jicama, and taste like a cross between apple, watermelon, celery and pear.
Also called sweet-root, Peruvian ground apple, Bolivian sunroot and pear of the Earth, the plant is native to the Andean region of South America, today’s Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. It has been cultivated in the region for hundreds of years — the Incas called the vegetable water root, thanks to its refreshing flavor — and is still a staple crop in South and Central America today.
Fun Facts about Yacon:
- Yacon has recently become popular in Western diets, in part because it is rich in inulin, an indigestible sugar. This makes the vegetable very sweet, but low calorie.
- Yacon is a close relative of the sunchoke, which also has sweet, crisp tubers.
What to Look for When Buying Yacon
Many varieties of yacon grow in South America, including red, orange, yellow, pink and purple tubers. Outside of its native area, you are likely to only find the white varieties.
While yacon syrup or powder is more commonly found in the US, if you see fresh yacon at a farmers’ market or Hispanic grocer, look for tubers with no black, mushy or spongy spots.
Sustainability of Yacon
Yacon is a relatively easy to grow, high-yielding plant that thrives well in areas with constant moisture and mild temperatures. The plant is relatively unknown outside of its native South America, and global commercial production is limited. They are susceptible to pest infestation but chemical free measures, like netting or plastic bagging the fruit, are often effective prophylactics. Yacon growth also improves soil fertility.
Yacon is available in the US in California between October and December.
While frost can help bring out sweetness in yacon, the vegetable doesn’t do well in temperatures lower than 40 degrees. Up until the 1960s, yacon wasn’t cultivated outside of its native South America. Since then, it has spread to Japan, New Zealand and Nepal, among others. Today, Argentina is the major producer. In the US, it can be grown as a garden plant, and is also commercially produced in North and Central California.
It’s best to peel yacon, as the skin is bitter. It turns brown quickly, so peel and cut it at the last minute. To prevent discoloring, sprinkle with lemon juice or soak in lemon water.
Like other root vegetables, yacon does well stored in cool, dry areas. Store it in a dry shed, garage or basement. It can stay fresh for several months and will sweeten over time. Do not wash the yacon before storing, as it will go moldy once damp.
The crisp texture and refreshing flavor of yacon makes it a great snack, eaten peeled and sliced. It’s also a good addition to salad bowls; try it in the traditional South American fruit salad salpicon, or grated into coleslaw. It can also be added raw into smoothies.
It can also be cooked like other tubers, used in curries and soups or cut into slices and fried (like potatoes). Thanks to its fruity sweetness, the vegetable is also a great addition to desserts, such puddings, cakes and pies.
Yacon leaves are also edible, and can be used similarly to other root vegetable greens or spinach. They can also be used as a wrap, as you would with cabbage leaves, and are often used to make tea. The rhizome is also edible, but can be more fibrous, and is usually used to regrow the plant.
A popular way to preserve yacon is making syrup, which is often used as a calorie-free sweetener. You can also dehydrate yacon slices, then pulverize the dried vegetable into a powder. Yacon can also be cooked down into an applesauce-like preserve.
There has been a lot of recent buzz around yacon, calling the vegetable a “superfood.” What that means is unclear, but the root vegetable is a high fiber, low-calorie food with beneficial prebiotic and probiotic bacterias which are thought to aid in digestion and gut health. The tubers and leaves are both good sources of antioxidants. And as mentioned above, it is also popular among nutritionists because its sweet flavor comes from hard-to-digest inulin, rather than sucrose or other sugars, making it more ideal for diabetics.
Top photo by phloen/Adobe Stock.